Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) head Thomas J. Basting, Sr. admitted that the amount of negative publicity the eight-member group generated during its first year caught him by surprise.
But he expects a quieter 2009 for the WJCIC, despite the fact that there is another contested state Supreme Court race.
“Did we learn a lesson from last year?” Basting said. “You know, the people on this committee are sophisticated, seasoned professionals, not easily affected by the kind of stupid criticisms we had.”
Opponents of the committee say the criticisms were justified and they question whether the committee should be back this year.
“If you look back, the committee would have probably earned a failing grade because instead of working with the candidates, it took a ham-handed approach to force subjective rules on campaigns,” said Darrin Schmitz, who was the chief advisor for current Justice Michael J. Gableman’s campaign last year.
Schmitz noted that there are already laws and rules in place to monitor election conduct.
“I think there is a reasonable argument made by many that the committee should be ignored,” Schmitz said.
Last year, Schmitz called for the committee to withdraw from any involvement in the election after a series of e-mails relayed among members suggested partiality for incumbent Justice Louis B. Butler Jr.
Schmitz, who is not advising either candidate in this year’s Supreme Court race, said that the only way to address what he calls “credibility” issues is to completely revamp the roster.
“I think the problem can only be rectified by completely turning over its membership,” Schmitz said.
Basting, who chairs the committee, did not expect an entirely new membership, but he said that there is likely to be some turnover.
He declined to say whether that is a direct result of past allegations of bias, but a couple of current members may elect to step down this year because of past campaign contributions to either Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson or challenger Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy R. Koschnick.
Basting said the committee has a standing rule that anyone who has contributed to either candidate in the last 10 years is not expected to serve on the WJCIC.
He declined to reveal who the new members will be or which ones may be leaving the committee. A new roster is expected after a committee meeting in early February.
“Those e-mails were discussed at length and the criticism that came was from right-wing critics,” Basting said. “That will not happen this year.”
“It’s up to the people who were critical of the committee if they want to carry that fight over to this year,” Basting said.
He also touted the positive impact the committee had in its first year, especially with the review of a campaign ad run by Gableman, which led to a formal complaint filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission.
The complaint is awaiting review by a three-judge ethics panel.
But Basting also said he does not expect the same “nastiness” during this year’s race between Abrahamson and Koschnick.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that both candidates have indicated they will comply with the rules of judicial conduct and denounce third-party ads,” Basting said.
He said the committee will again review and respond to campaign advertisements that potentially violate the judicial code of conduct.
Heather Coburn is heading up Abrahamson’s campaign. She said the WJCIC has yet to contact the chief justice about her campaign.
Koschnick’s senior campaign advisor Seamus Flaherty said it is too early to speculate on what role the WJCIC will play in this year’s race, but said the judge will “welcome any opportunity to restore and maintain public confidence in the process of selecting Supreme Court justices.”